Sophie Whippy of Stretch London

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Stretch comprises two yoga studios in East London, run by Sophie and husband Carl, offering yoga and function fitness training classes with an inclusive, community-based approach and an easy-going vibe.

Interviewed in London in March 2017

Sophie: ‘We chose the name ‘Stretch’ because we wanted to be clear, simple and inclusive. In the past, a lot of yoga studios had hippy names but we didn’t want to put anyone off yoga by making it mystical or ‘other’. At the end of the day, yoga is breathing and movement. We also wanted to distance ourselves from any brand of yoga based on charismatic gurus or cult of personality. We decided our brand would be straightforward and inclusive.

‘I began my career in fashion; with a degree in fashion photography, then at ASOS in casting, then I joined a model agency. Next I became [hairstylist] Josh Wood’s PA, helping to open his Atelier. My strengths are organising, negotiating rates and back end productions. Next I moved to Streeters, an agency representing photographers, make-up artists and stylists. It’s a market leader, and it had been a personal goal to work there, but once there I became disillusioned, finding it dry and competitive. It was all big money deals, big egos and zero gratitude and made me question what I was doing, working nuts hours yet feeling somewhat uninspired. Then I found out I was pregnant. By the time I went on maternity leave we’d opened the first iteration of Stretch, so for a while I was working both jobs.

My husband Carl was a yoga teacher when I met him and I subsequently trained as one. He was teaching, DJing and producing music and dreamed of opening a studio. We noticed there wasn’t one in our area of Hackney, so we watched for an opportunity. Fitness studio FRAME had done a pop-up in Netil House, a former office block housing artists’ and designers’ studios. We took over that space, with a load of mats we got wholesale and a speedily-assembled team of yoga teachers. In fact, we recruited one of them from behind the bar in Netil House itself.

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‘I’d get up early every day to open the yoga studio, then go to the office for a full day, then I’d work on Stretch’s website in the evenings – all while pregnant. It was exciting; for opening weekend in 2012 we offered free classes and got 40 or 50 people in each which created a buzz. We emphasised the community aspect so anyone could come whether they had much money or experience of yoga. We stayed in Netil House for the rest of the year, then looked for more sustainable premises and found a great space in a row of shops on Ada Street, next to Broadway Market. Stretch became more visible and started to get walk-in traffic. We’d originally started with two classes a day, then, by trial and error, increased the classes, so by the time we opened at Ada Street we had a working schedule.

‘We have 35 yoga teachers on our books. They are self-employed so I’m not their boss in a traditional sense, but we pay them and they represent us while here, plus two members of staff who are contracted to us. I’ve had to learn what I call ‘bedside manner’ on the job. I was used to working in fashion, I was young, only 23, and I didn’t always oil the wheels enough with people, tending towards impatience. I’ve developed a more gentle style since then, as I’ve grown up. Carl and I learned as we went along to trust our instinct and put out good things in the faith that good will come back. Our core team of teachers is strong and many of them have stayed with us for years. When I’m hiring I look for someone who is passionate about teaching and authentically wants to help students.’

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Investment and finance

‘When we first started we borrowed money to get the bare bones; mats and curtains. Our parents lent us – they borrowed from bank loans. To expand at Ada Street we got investment, but not for Columbia Road. Hackney Business Advice Bureau is government-funded to help start-ups. They teach financial forecasting and business plans. We got advice rather than funding, but whether or not you’ll get business advice depends on your lender; so that’s a tip – look for that expertise.

The best type of marketing for us is word of mouth. From the beginning we’ve aimed to build a community and that’s the key to our success. We’ve used little or no paid advertising. In terms of social media, our clientele follow us on Instagram. Then we offer monthly memberships or 10 class passes.

We also run about five or six retreats a year. We call them holidays as they are more laid-back than some yoga retreats; open to meat-eaters and those who fancy a beer after dinner. We price them with our core customers in mind; they aren’t millionaires so we don’t make them too expensive. There are people who met each other on our holidays who’ve become friends for life, which I love. We also offer yoga teacher training which has been a natural evolution for us – we now have over 60 graduates Qualified from Stretch.

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‘Getting the schedule right was a case of trial and error; expanding our studios particularly undertaking building work done is hard. Myself and Carl work and live together which has challenges and good moments. It’s hard to switch off at the end of the day and took a few years to find the balance. Ditto being a mum! At the very beginning I used to work on reception accompanied by my son as a baby. As he got older that didn’t work, but when he was first born I didn’t want to leave him with anyone else so I would sit in bed with him and do the schedule and payroll. I could get things done as long as I could be near him – you figure out what works for you and what doesn’t.

Expanding your established business is financially stressful, it’s a leap of faith. Growing your business isn’t necessarily harder than starting one; when you have a business that is proved to work, people are more supportive so in some ways it can be easier. When you start out and no one knows what you’re doing or whether it will work out, people aren’t so generous with time or money. But then you have more to lose when expanding vs starting out, so it’s still challenging.

‘My advice for people who want to go into business would be; do lots of research – deeply research the world you’re going into. Trust your instincts, don’t do anything you’re not comfortable with. If you’re working with people always be fair – don’t underpay and expect loads back – there should be a fair energy exchange. Ask people for help and advice, you’ll be surprised how people want to share what they’ve learned rather than view you as competition. If you are new and your need help, ask people experienced in that area about what’s lacking.

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Best moments

‘Highlights have been moments like students coming out of class and really thanking me. Sometimes people email to say yoga has helped them through a difficult time. When people reach out to you and say what you have done is helping them or saving them that is the most rewarding. Also, we do after-school club for kids between four and seven and when they arrive they are manically energetic and by the end they’re calm. I love the fact we can facilitate that shift.’


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